• Setting the agenda for constitutional reform

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    (Second of four parts)
    Some of us feel that any change should be better than today’s situation which is punctuated by legislative gridlock and a system of elections producing an upper house which at least in the time of my father was the haven of the best and the brightest; but today, with a few exceptions, has become the house of the brightest stars of showbiz, sports, and the darlings of media.

    If we must change, it must be for the better. If the proposed charter change leads us to political maturity, the underpinnings will have to be an improved electoral system and the development of political parties based on philosophy of government rather than on personalities. A presidential or parliamentary form of government when driven by development-oriented political parties can do a lot to accelerate total development.

    In the process of changing the constitution, perhaps the most cost-effective and expeditious way would be by a constituent assembly.

    The reasons for these are the following:

    1) A constitutional convention, given the level of political immaturity of our people, cannot guarantee the selection of the best and the brightest.

    2) A thorough overhaul of constitutional provisions will unnecessarily prolong the process of change and surely divide this country over so many contentious issues and articles that are possibly better preserved in the charter.

    3) The cost will be enormous and will distract the whole nation that should now concern itself with generating greater productivity, income, and employment.

    If the constituent assembly is deemed the best course of action to take in the process of charter change, the following are recommended:

    1) A very transparent process that can harness the best and brightest on constructive discussion while making the process as participatory as possible.

    2) Limit the agenda to just a few important items (e.g. form of government, electoral and economic reforms, and local autonomy).

    Presidential vs. parliamentary
    Because of the fixed term of office of the president, in a presidential system, the chief executive is not responsible to the parliament and thus it cannot replace a weak, inept, or corrupt president.

    The only avenue is through impeachment.

    The Estrada case has also demonstrated that an impeachment is not without political risks. It is a lengthy process subjected to the political maneuverings in both houses of the legislature. There is no certainty that a malperforming president can be removed from office. The unwillingness of major sections of society to bear such costs constitutes the second choice: to overthrow the incumbent by resorting to extraconstitional means. As this option will almost inevitably involve the armed forces, it sets dangerous precedents. It will strengthen the political influence of the military and may thus pave the way for a seizure of power in a future crisis.

    Great concentration of executive power is in a single person—the president. The executive control over the budgetary process vests the president with superior patronage power. The presidential control over pork barrel is related to the phenomenon of “turncoatism,” a local term for the change of party affiliation after an election.

    During her presidency, Corazon Aquino has been criticized for failing to utilize her almost dictatorial power under her freedom constitution. Later President Fidel Ramos, while exerting strong leadership, was known to have closely consulted and in the process shared powers with his Cabinet. President Estrada’s personalistic, and in the end, highly erratic style of government was the bane of his term.

    Critics of the presidential system point to the immense power held by Philippine presidents whom political scientists even claim to wield more power than the US President.

    While President Quezon was reputed to be dictatorial and President Manuel Roxas dominated the political and economic landscape, the other presidents were held hostage by the strong political parties and vested interests that chose them (e.g. the Nacionalista Party and the sugar bloc that dominated the same).

    Moreover, then President Aquino yielded to the civil society group that carried her on their shoulders to the place during EDSA I. Former President Ramos was a team player who relied on his political allies and official family. He was moderate in the exercise of his immense power given the fact that he carried only less than a third of the popular vote. Former President Estrada depended mostly on his midnight and daylight cabinets showing very little personal executive initiative.

    In brief, presidential styles determine the weight of the presidency on governance.

    It must be mentioned in this context that the foreign influence must be factored into presidential decision making. Today, globalization, multilateral organizations like the IMF and World Bank can effectively constrain the use of presidential power of a nation. Only the likes of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir have what it takes to defy IMF conditionalities.

    The system of checks and balances can hold the President hostage. Congressional intransigence of say budgetary matters and Supreme Court decisions can frustrate executive initiatives. Finally, in a relatively loosely organized coalition of parties that form a government, the power of the president can easily be contained. Former President Marcos had to invent the concept of constitutional authoritarianism to be able to get away with his political if not personal agenda for better or for ill.

    Victims of parliamentarism
    Political stability is not guaranteed by the parliamentary process. Weak parliamentary democracies have in the past provoked military intervention. The military took over the government of Thailand in 1947, 1971, 1976, and 1991. In Indonesia in 1957, in South Korea in 1961, in Burma in 1958 and 1962, and in Cambodia in 1997.

    Parliamentary government in Southeast Asia have been characteristically marked by personalistic balkanized, non-ideological parties that are brokered by politically entrenched economic elite operating in rural areas where dynasties reign supreme. One thing that the strong presidential style brought about in the reign of the Quezons and Magsaysays was the dismantling of private armies wielded by political bosses who held sway in their respective bailiwicks through the use of the powerful guns, goons and gold. In a parliamentary system, political parties that compose parliament does not necessarily represent the mosaic of sectoral interests that comprise a liberal democracy.

    (To be continued)

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